U.S.-Egypt: The Magic is Gone
It”s no secret that the U.S.-Egyptian relationship is ailing. As his term went on, President George W. Bush seemed to go to Egypt principally to deliver stern lectures. After years of visiting Washington every spring, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stopped coming to Washington at all. Despite — or perhaps because of — $2 billion per year changing hands, the mutual resentment has become palpable.
The hostility among the two leaders reflects a deeper divide between their governments and even among peoples. More than three decades after U.S. and Egyptian presidents together changed the landscape of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the U.S.-Egyptian relationship has grown stale. Egyptians feel unappreciated, and they complain that they have sold off their foreign policy for meager reward. Americans feel that their aid has been taken for granted, and they are embarrassed that so close an ally has such a checkered record in treating its own people. Although the two sides continue to cooperate on a wide array of shared interests, the amount that is done out of goodwill continues to dwindle.
The relationship has been drifting downward for years, and it can drift downward still. Yet the way in which the relationship continues to disappoint expectations is corrosive. It makes even things that Americans and Egyptians agree upon harder to accomplish, and that exacerbates differences. Both countries have an interest in redefining the relationship, in one of two ways.
One option is to reinvigorate the relationship by giving it a renewed sense of purpose. The modern Egyptian-American relationship was forged in the depths of the Cold War when Egypt pivoted out of the Soviet embrace, aligned itself with the United States, and defied the Arab consensus by making peace with Israel. The consequences of Egyptian policy were truly strategic not only for Egypt, but also for the United States. Egypt was a clear regional leader, and its actions helped reshape the Middle East.
Now, there is no grand project that the two countries share. With no Cold War, a much less defiant Arab consensus, and Arab governments” grudging acceptance of Israel in the Middle East, Egypt is harder pressed to play the role of a vanguard, while the United States is less in need of one. Today”s geopolitics lend themselves to small and incremental moves rather than bold strokes. Egypt”s help fighting the “small wars” of the twenty-first century, for example, is important but probably insufficient to be truly strategic. In other areas where the United States has an interest, Egypt is not the most likely agent of change. It is hard to imagine Egypt leading an economic transition in the Middle East, and its political culture does not lend itself toward dramatic shifts in politics and governance.
None of this is to suggest that a grand project cannot be found, only that one is not evident. But what is clear is that the current relationship is predicated on having a grand project, and the absence of such a project makes the relationship hollow.
The other option is for both Egypt and the United States to agree that the current relationship has outlived its usefulness, and the time has come for both countries to invest in diversifying their relationships in the Middle East and around the world. The Egyptian government is keenly interested in pursuing deeper relationships with China and Russia, and it chafes at subordinating its Middle East policy to American whims. Decoupling Egypt and the United States would free Egypt to pursue its own ambitions. Such a move might smooth the way for Egypt”s resurrection as the pre-eminent regional power, skillfully deploying its demographic weight and diplomatic skill to shape regional politics. At the same time, distance from the United States may make Egypt even weaker on the regional stage, and it could be a landmark in Egypt”s decay.
For the United States, greater distance from Egypt would have several practical effects. U.S. aid to Egypt would be sharply reduced, and the huge U.S. embassy in Cairo would shrink. While U.S. and Egyptian officials would continue to work together on security issues of common concern — and there are a very large number of those — the United States would have to deepen its military and intelligence relationships with neighboring countries to compensate for less cooperation with Egypt. The result would likely be a net fiscal gain for the United States, and a more diverse set of donors may even give Egypt net fiscal gains as well. But the principal payoff would not be measured in dollars and cents.
“Right-sizing” the relationship would take the emotional edge off Egyptian complaints about American meddling and American complaints about Egyptian recalcitrance. It would give greater credibility to Egyptian claims that it is pursuing its own interests in regional affairs, and it would relieve complaints that the United States” close relationship with Egypt is a betrayal of its values. Such a change would mean that the bilateral relationship would fall to its “natural” and sustainable level, focusing on considerable areas of agreement between the two governments. Equally importantly, reducing the size of the relationship would give it an opportunity to grow, should sufficient common basis be found to do so.
Of these two options, the first is preferable; rebuilding a robust relationship would help both sides. If that proves impossible, a relationship more modest in its scope and ambitions would still advance the interests of each.
Some argue that any change requires new Egyptian leadership, and with an octogenarian president in Cairo, the wisest course is patience. Yet, allowing relations to drift in the face of grandiose goals and modest returns undermines our partnership rather than building it, leaving future leaders to chart the direction of the relationship from a far weaker position. Changing the nature of this relationship will take time, and the hard work of laying out choices before Americans and Egyptians must begin now. A change must come, and it is far better to do so through preparation and foresight than haste and happenstance.
Jon B. Alterman is director and senior fellow of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This article originally appeared in the CSIS publication “Middle East Notes and Comment,” and is copyrighted by the author.